Education and Child Policy

November 11, 2019 11:07AM

Homeschooling, Choice, and Innovation: A Response

Homeschooling continues to be a popular option for many U.S. families as they seek alternatives to conventional mass schooling. In my September briefing paper for Cato, I argued that homeschoolers should generally support the expansion of education choice programs, whether or not they personally benefit from such programs, because an environment of education choice empowers parents to consider a variety of options for their children, including homeschooling.

I spotlighted four states, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, that have some of the most robust education choice programs in the country, and that also demonstrated increases in the homeschooling population while the K‑12 public school population declined.

My briefing paper was clearly correlational and suggestive from the beginning. I made no causal claims and no indication that this brief was in any way an exhaustive report or deep statistical analysis. Indeed, this was my thesis: “This paper offers an overview of homeschooling trends and a glimpse at the current homeschooling population while arguing that educational freedom creates momentum for families to seek alternatives to conventional mass schooling.”

Despite the obvious nature of my 8‑page briefing paper, Robert Kunzman at Indiana University wrote a 10‐​page critical response, stating that my “report suggests a causal link between greater private education choice and continued homeschooling growth and innovation.”

Nothing in my paper suggested “a causal link,” and Kunzman is correct to acknowledge, as I did, that collecting data on homeschoolers is challenging. The four states I selected are known to be four of the most aggressive school choice states, and they also track and report state‐​level data on homeschoolers — something many states do not do at all.

As I wrote in my briefing paper: “Certain states with robust private education choice programs, however, are seeing particularly high growth in homeschooling compared with overall public school enrollment.”

In his critique, Kunzman explains that while I mentioned New Hampshire’s unique tax‐​credit scholarship program and offered an example of how homeschooling is supporting education innovation in the state, New Hampshire is not included in my analysis.

I did not include New Hampshire because its education choice programs are meager compared to other states, and its state‐​reported data on homeschooling are flawed. Kunzman acknowledges this flaw, writing: “During the three‐​year period the report examines, their official homeschool numbers have actually declined from 5,914 to 2,875, but the state notes that ‘due to reporting changes, the data in this report should not be compared to prior years for trend data.’”

According to Michelle Levell, who runs the non‐​profit organization School Choice for New Hampshire, the reporting change resulted in data on homeschoolers registering in a given year, and not the cumulative total of all homeschoolers in the state.

As Levell writes: “In the DOE’s reading, ‘shall maintain a list of all home education programs’ does not mean a running total.” The New Hampshire state‐​level data on homeschoolers are unreliable and should not be cited in any meaningful analysis on homeschooling rates.

Kunzman also challenges my claim that homeschooling is driving education innovation. He writes:

Educational options for homeschoolers have indeed proliferated as their numbers have grown, and many of these — such as umbrella academies, private learning centers, and family‐​run learning cooperatives — enable students to customize their educational experiences in a variety of creative ways. If this is what the report means by ‘a key trend’ (p. 3), then plenty of anecdotal evidence supports this limited claim. But such innovation is hardly unique to homeschooling.

Kunzman explains that innovation is also occurring in public and private schools, but he misses my main point. I argue that the type of innovation that is occurring through homeschooling, due to its flexibility and opportunity to bypass restrictive compulsory schooling statutes, is the type of disruptive innovation that will fundamentally disentangle education from schooling.

As I wrote in my briefing paper: “By shifting power to families, education choice creates greater variety in how young people learn and triggers education entrepreneurship and experimentation. With its legal flexibility, homeschooling provides an ideal incubator for educational ingenuity.”

In my brief, I suggest that homeschoolers benefit from an environment of education choice even if they are not included in a choice mechanism because as education options expand, more families will likely consider homeschooling and more resources for homeschoolers will then sprout.

In what is perhaps the most peculiar rebuke of my paper, Kunzman asserts: “Creating more homeschoolers, however, isn’t necessarily a primary goal of current homeschoolers; certainly many of the homeschoolers I’ve interviewed over the past fifteen years would not want to see more parents homeschooling just for the sake of increased numbers, if those parents are not deeply committed to doing it well.”

Whether or not a goal of current homeschoolers is to cultivate more homeschoolers, the reality is that as the population of homeschoolers expands in a given area, there will likely be more abundant and diverse resources for homeschooling families. Some of these resources would benefit current homeschooling families who would be able to take advantage of more activities, classes, and social opportunities.

But many of these resources will likely involve home‐​based micro‐​schools, hybrid homeschooling programs, learning centers, and other innovations that look nothing like traditional homeschooling but that meet the needs of many more families who would otherwise not have access to this education option. The growth of homeschooling widens opportunities for both current homeschooling families and new homeschooling families who gain access to a different way of learning.

I am delighted that my September briefing paper sparked interest and dialogue about the intersection of homeschooling, choice, and education innovation. Homeschooling families have long advocated for the right to opt‐​out of conventional schooling, create new learning approaches, and choose the educational path that works best for them. They should be on the front lines of supporting expanded educational freedom and choice for all families.

October 30, 2019 11:59AM

First Look at Latest National Test Scores: Is It Cultural?

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress — the “Nation’s Report Card” — scores are out, and they aren’t encouraging. But how discouraged should we be?

The main NAEP tracks national, state, and selected local scores back to the early 1990s, though there have been some changes that have affected comparability among years, and not all states have participated every year. As you can see below, this year saw average scores drop in 4th and 8th grade reading, and 8th grade math, since 2017, but rise a tad in 4th grade math. Over the years, math has seen much more encouraging growth than reading.

2019 NAEP reading scores

2019 NAEP math scores

How about subgroups? Here, too, the latest scores have mainly dipped with the exception of 4th grade math, including for African‐​American, low‐​income, and Catholic school kids.

How worried should we be, and what’s to blame? The latter question is difficult to answer from broad data, and I haven’t had the chance to delve into more detail yet. But it is possible that students are still recovering from the Great Recession, schools are still recovering, the post No Child Left Behind Act era has de‐​emphasized standardized testing, the Common Core has set us back, and more.

My guess is that the de‐​emphasis on standardized testing is a big factor, and that may be just fine: The United States has never had a culture geared toward standardized testing or even high academic achievement relative to many other nations, and we have done pretty well by embracing creativity and individuality. We have also increasingly seen studies suggesting that higher test scores do not translate well into the kinds of long‐​term life outcomes we want, including college attendance and employment outcomes.

All things equal, of course, we don’t want to see achievement scores drop, especially when we spend more per‐​pupil on K‑12 education than almost any other country. But all things are not equal, and while we should certainly want to know why scores have dipped, we should not panic. All may not be so bad, and what should ultimately matter in a free society is that families can access the education that they think is best.

October 21, 2019 3:16PM

Hot Take: Elizabeth Warren’s K‑12 Education Plan

Elizabeth Warren speaks to Iowa AFL-CIO

This morning, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released her plan, or at least its general contours, for K‑12 education. There are a few marginal positives in it, but for the most part, at least based on my first, quick reading, it is exactly what you’d expect: spend a lot and attack school choice. All this while ignoring the Constitution, which simply does not authorize the vast majority of what Warren wants to do.

The Decent Stuff

Foremost among the decent things, Warren’s plan opposes high‐​stakes testing. Holding schools “accountable” using standardized tests has been central to federal policy since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2002, peaking with the Common Core around 2011. It took a hit with the reauthorization of No Child — renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act—which reduced how many schools stand to be punished for poor scores. But uniform standards and testing at the state‐​level are still mandated by federal law, and it appears Warren would end that.

Alas, even this good thing is accompanied by a fair amount of bad, as the plan sounds like it would not only end federal testing mandates, it would mandate that no high stakes tests be used. “As president, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing” for making any “high‐​stakes decisions,” sayeth the plan. So Warren would continue onerous federal control, only to impose her anti-testing view of how education should work.

Warren would also end the Charter Schools Program, which spends about $440 million annually to help charter schools find and develop buildings, create new schools, etc. As we’ll see in a moment, this is almost certainly included because Warren thinks school choice has gone too far. But ending unconstitutional programs, which also give tuition‐​free charters another competitive advantage over private schools, is nonetheless the right thing to do.

In addition to these things, Warren calls for decriminalizing truancy—it’s generally a good idea to avoid criminalizing everything — and also puts some emphasis on using magnet schools to promote school integration. That at least suggests she recognizes that sustainable integration must be chosen.

The Bad

The primary problem with the Warren plan — other than its root failure to obey the Constitution — is its promise of massive increases in federal spending, especially quadrupling funding under Title I, from about $16 billion per year to $61 billion. She would also use the lure of extra federal taxpayer funding to coax increased state taxpayer outlays, though I couldn’t find specific figures for what the matching ratios might be.

In addition, she would increase federal spending for students with disabilities from about $13 billion annually to $33 billion. She would also create new “Excellence Grants” at $10 billion per year for districts to spend on programs they believe are important. Last but not least among the big ticket items, she would spend an additional $50 billion on school infrastructure. Assuming the last item would be over 10 years — the plan doesn’t say — all told, that’s about $80 billion in new funding per year, or $800 billion over a decade.

A big problem is that there is little evidence that massive increases in federal spending will produce anything like commensurate improvements in outcomes. We also know that reports of crumbling schools are greatly exaggerated. And with a $23 trillion national debt, how will this all be paid for?

Warren’s answer is a wealth tax. It’s a proposal that not only demonizes the wealthy and fuels division, but which will almost certainly fail to produce the revenue she needs for this and many other plans. Taxpayers who are targeted will likely find loopholes and take their wealth to other countries, just as we’ve seen elsewhere.

The other Big Bad is the plan’s attack on school choice. Were Warren to propose having no federal funding for choice, that would be fine, though she should do the same for traditional public schooling. But she would go further. It appears that Warren would try to outright force charter schools to follow the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools, ignoring the whole idea of innovative schools freed of red tape in exchange for unique accountability plans and a need to attract students.

She would also, apparently, fight to make sure only school districts—those with whom charters try to compete—could authorize charters. She would also work to ban for‐​profit charter schools, and would sic the IRS on nonprofits that politicos suspect are acting like for‐​profits. This despite studies suggesting charters tend to work pretty well, especially in urban areas and on a cost‐​per‐​pupil basis, and that management companies can be beneficial. And for many charters, just responding to taxpayer‐​funded IRS fishing expeditions could prove to be crippling administrative and legal burdens.

At the same time Warren opposes choice that enables people to obtain education commensurate with their values and identities, she would put federal taxpayer money into curricula dealing with hot‐​button, values‐​laden topics as sex education and Native American history. This could easily inflame zero‐​sum culture wars and ensure the whole country is forced into combat.

Finally, among the plan’s larger problems, Warren promises to “eliminate the ability of states to pass anti‐​union ‘right to work’ laws.” She would have no presidential authority to do that, and it would seem to be a direct challenge to the recent Supreme Court Janus decision, which prohibited forced payment of non‐​member “agency fees.” Forced unionization would be an even greater violation of freedom of association and speech.


What’s in the Warren K‑12 plan is not surprising. But it is still concerning.

October 16, 2019 1:54PM

The College More of the Same Act

If you were expecting big steps forward on the Higher Education Act from the House Committee on Education and Labor, prepare to be disappointed. Yesterday, the Democratic majority released the College Affordability Act—which for some reason says “Est. 2019” — and it delivers pretty much what we’ve seen established since about 1969: A general conviction that what higher ed mainly needs is more government money…and no openly for‐​profit schools.

The centerpieces of the bill are federal funds to encourage states to make community colleges free, increases in Pell Grants, cheaper student loans, and cracking down “on predatory for‐​profit colleges.” Let’s look at each of these very briefly.

Free Community College

The nearly 1,200 page bill, which committee staffers estimate would cost about $400 billion over 10 years, would offer funds to states that agreed to make their community colleges tuition‐​and‐​fee free while at least holding steady other higher ed funding. The bill sets up quickly escalating appropriations for this starting at about $1.6 billion in 2021, peaking at $16.3 billion in 2030.

This is short of the free four‐​year college plans that some Democrats, especially on the campaign trail, are talking about, but it would nonetheless be a new federal effort to incentivize “free” college. But not only is the national debt approaching $23 trillion—where will the federal money come from? — states have major budget constraints of their own. Perhaps even more important, community college appears to be a poor investment, with the National Student Clearinghouse reporting that the share of students completing public 2‑year programs in 6 years is an anemic 39 percent.

Community college 6-year completion rate, National Student Clearinghouse

Increased Pell

There is little question that student aid has enabled colleges to increase prices—it’s baked right into them. Pell Grants are one band of a rainbow of aid sources, which also includes federal loans, work study, institutional grants, and more. This bill would increase the maximum Pell from $6,695 in 2021 to an estimated $8,305 by 2029. To put that in perspective, the average sticker price at a public four‐​year institution in the 2018 – 19 school year was $10,230.

Cheaper Student Loans

This bill would also goose student loans by providing more generous terms; exempting from repayment in income‐​based plans income under 250 percent of the poverty line (it is currently 150 percent); eliminating loan origination fees; and more. We need less generous aid in order to slow artificially fueled price inflation, as well as incredibly wasteful consumption — yes, waterparks, but also non‐​learning—and this does the opposite.

For‐​profit Colleges

Colleges run explicitly for profit — almost all institutions actually seek it—have long been an outsized target of politicians. This bill keeps it up by reinforcing “gainful employment” rules targeted at for‐​profit schools, despite the fact that most people who go to any college do so to get a job, and enrollment at for‐​profits has been roughly halved since 2010. It also goes after the “90−10” rule, which requires a school to get no more than 90 percent of its revenue via federal student aid but currently exempts the G.I. Bill. 90 percent is, of course, a lot of revenue to come via taxpayers, but for context one needs to remember that for‐​profit colleges do not get big direct subsidies like public institutions, or tax‐​favored donations like publics and private, non‐​profits. Oh, and unlike those other sectors, for‐​profits pay taxes.

This is in no way to suggest that admittedly for‐​profit higher education works well—it does not—but the whole, massively subsidized system is broken. Unfortunately, this bill would only make matters worse.

September 25, 2019 3:40PM

School Choice Rules!

A new federal report on school choice has just been released, and it is full of good news about private schooling, except for one thing: its market share is small, and getting smaller. In large part this is because private institutions are competing against schools for which people must pay taxes and are “free” to users: public schools, including charter schools that people often see as private (minus pesky tuition, plus state testing and, often, other intrusive government rules). Still, chartering is better than simply being assigned to a school based on your home address. Which brings us to some highlights:

Decreased Government Assignment to Schools

Add together all the homeschooling, private schooling, charters, and choice among district public schools, and the percentage of families attending an assigned public school has dropped from 74 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2016. Still way too high for a free country, but moving in the right direction.

Parents are choosing schools more often than in 1999

Private Schools are Safer and Kinder Than Public

We’ve seen this studied before, but this report again shows that private schools as a whole are safer and have better climates than public schools. As the charts below indicate, private schools are the sites of less gang activity, hate‐​related graffiti, hate‐​related utterances, and bullying than public schools.

Private schools see much less gang activity than public

Private schools see much less hate-related graffiti than public

Students in private schools are less likely to be called hate-related words

Students in private schools are less likely to be bullied than in public schools

Private Schools are Far More Satisfying on Many Measures

Whether it’s teachers, academic standards, discipline, staff interactions, or the school overall, parents using private schools are much more likely to be “very satisfied” even than parents who have chosen a public school.

Parents very satisfied

These results would change, at least somewhat, were we to adjust them for family income, race, or other variables. But it is hard to spin this as anything but a positive report for the ability to choose among private schools.

September 18, 2019 11:09AM

New York Bill Would Enable Visitation Demands On Adoptive Families

Thank you to Naomi Riley for including me in her Wall Street Journal piece earlier this month on a New York scheme to empower birthparents whose parental rights have been terminated to petition nonetheless for court‐​ordered visitation. The quotes from me:

In many cases adoptive parents do arrange with birthparents for some kind of contact after an adoption is completed. “Some adoptive parents are glad to agree to those conditions, and that’s fine for them. Where they have not, it is a very bad idea to adopt a presumption of enforcing such a long‐​term obligation on unwilling adopters,” notes Walter Olson, an adoptive parent and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

The legislation presents serious logistical concerns as well. What if an adoptive family wants to move across the country? Would the courts be able to prevent them? “Adoptive families are real families and deserve the full rights of other such families unless they have agreed to some other arrangement,” says Mr. Olson.

And more:

In a letter to Gov. Cuomo opposing the bill, the group New York Attorneys for Adoption and Family Formation explained that the law may also violate the due‐​process rights of adoptive parents. In 2000, they point out, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Washington state law.

Both houses of the New York legislature have now passed the bill, which is supported by legal services groups like the Legal Aid Society of New York City but opposed by the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York (AFFCNY), the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies (COFCCA), “which represents nonprofit foster care agencies statewide, and the New York Public Welfare Association (NYPWA), which represents county government child welfare directors,” as Michael Fitzgerald notes at the Chronicle of Social Change. AFFCNY has more on its opposition here, and notes: “Adoptive families would have no choice but to hire and pay for legal representation for themselves.”

[cross‐​posted from Overlawyered]

August 21, 2019 4:56PM

American Public on Education: “We Want It All”

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, back‐​to‐​school also means the release of lots of education polling, and Tuesday brought us the yearly Education Next poll, which is one of my favorites. (Of course, I love all you crazy polls!) The Education Next folks do a lot of interesting experimentation with their polls, especially when it comes to funding, and they keep nice longitudinal data. I don’t love every part of the survey — looking at you, Common Core question — but overall I think it is well done and highly informative.

As usual, you should read the whole thing, and I’ll just hit some highlights.

More, more, more!

If there is one repeated theme to the poll, it’s that people generally want more of whatever is being discussed: more spending, higher teacher pay, more school choice, more accountability. People also tend to like their public schools and state colleges, and seem to want more higher ed.

Not especially well informed

While the members of the public express opinions on many education issues, they aren’t always especially knowledgeable, as you would expect of people with regular jobs and lives and not a ton of time to delve deeply into public policy issues, including education. They tend to greatly underestimate how much we spend on public schooling (by about 47 percent), public school teacher salaries (by about 30 percent), and they know either very little or the wrong things about charter schools (no, they cannot charge tuition or hold religious services).

School Choice

As you can see below, support for all sorts of choice — charters, vouchers, scholarship tax credits — rose this year, and scholarship tax credits remain the most popular option. This is probably because a lot of people like school choice and even more like tax credits. Charters have also rebounded after taking a sizeable dive between 2016 and 2017.

Media Name: choice_support_ed_next.png

Common Core

As we’ve seen before, a significant majority of the public likes the idea of common standards across states that would “be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” How much this question reflects support for common standards, accountability, or both is unclear. What is clear is if you attach the name of specific curriculum standards to it — the Common Core — support drops, though it has been inching up as the battle over the Core, and the Core itself, fades in the public memory.

Media Name: national_standards_support_ed_next.png

Free College

“Free” college is a bad idea for numerous reasons we have discussed many times—and apparently a lot of economists agree—but there is no question that the idea, at least in the abstract, is popular. 69 percent of the public favors it for two‐​year schools, and 60 percent for four‐​year institutions. Troubling, but who doesn’t like a free lunch?

Media Name: free_college_ed_next.png

Again, lot’s more to see here, so check it all out.